It is truly the end of an era today when Watsons the ironmongers in Inverurie closes its doors for the final time – after 18 decades in business.
Watsons was one of the north-east’s oldest and best-known businesses standing steadfast at its Market Place premises for an incredible 182 years.
Despite the changing face of retail, the traditional hardware store remained at the heart of Inverurie.
From pan handles to picture hooks, if you needed it, Watsons had it.
Industry and ironmongery
A young Queen Victoria had not long ascended the throne when the firm was founded in 1839 as A&J Bissett, a merchant’s shop.
It was the dawn of a new age in Britain – the industrial revolution was under way and Britain was quickly becoming a global heavyweight in manufacturing innovation.
A rural market town, Inverurie was not immune to urbanisation, and the railway reached the town in 1854.
Industry brought wealth, and soon the High Street was lined with large houses and businesses.
Much of the ironmonger’s business at this time would have been supplying internal ironmongery like door knobs, finger plates, locks, keys and hinges for properties in the expanding town.
A family firm
The firm changed hands on October 22 1872 when John McIntyre Watson bought the shop on Market Place.
An Inverurie man and town provost, he was a former ship’s engineer who had travelled to the Far East before returning to the Garioch.
A decade later in 1882, the business was passed down to John M Watson’s son James John Watson.
James J Watson changed the trading name to JJ Watson – a name that remains on the green sign above the shop to this day.
He also moved the business away from grocery and general wares to concentrate solely on the ironmongery aspect which saw a steady trade with nearby farms.
JJ Watson was a popular businessman within Inverurie, and renowned crack shot with a host of shooting trophies to his name.
A new century
As the 20th century progressed, the First World War brought strife and tragedy to families across the country.
Watsons the ironmongers saw young lads in its employment wounded, and JJ Watson himself was mobilised for war as a part of the 7th Gordon Highlanders.
He went to France in 1915, where he too was wounded, later he was stationed at Ripon in Yorkshire and survived the conflict before being discharged in 1919.
His business brought him close to the local farming community and he was involved with the Inverurie Agricultural Association as well as being a parish councillor.
He passed the family firm to his son James A Watson, who served an apprenticeship in ironmongery at Arbroath after the First World War.
JJ Watson died aged 66 in 1931 after a period of ill health.
It was up to the next generation – James A Watson – to steer Watsons into the modern age and as the years wore on, the business diversified.
The shop branched into glassware and china, establishing a gift and souvenir shop alongside its bread and butter ironmongery.
James A Watson passed away in 1967 and the firm was once again passed down through the family.
Watsons was now being run by fourth generation son James Stuart Watson and in 1972, the firm marked 100 years since the family took ownership.
At the time, the Watson family said although their outlook was modern, they were proud of retaining traditional aspects such as personalised customer service.
As part of the centenary celebrations a historic window display was arranged.
The windows were packed with antiques representing items sold throughout the ironmonger’s history including early butter churns, oil lamps, locks, a charcoal press, bellows and an old mouse trap.
Oil lamps may have been a relic from a bygone era, but the changing times hadn’t left Watsons in the dark.
Instead you could buy light switches, light bulbs, electrical cabling by the metre, and all the tools you could need for any DIY job.
An article to mark the centenary said: “The present-day articles have quality and style all their own, suited to these times.
“At J&J Watson one will find an abundance of them – from everything that the handyman could want, to ornaments of large St Bernard dogs with barrels round their necks and fine Siamese cats.”
A milestone 180 years
As the years passed, Watsons also ran a successful garden centre and in the summer trollies of bedding plants would brighten up the pavement outside.
The new millennium brought the biggest change in Watsons’ history when the business was bought over in 2000 by Inverurie businesswoman Mary Sloane.
In the age of flat-pack furniture and modern living, Mary recognised a need to move away from the old ironmongery term.
She paid tribute to her “knowledgeable” and dedicated staff whose first-class service ensured customers kept coming back.
Speaking in 2019 as the business marked 180 years, Mary said: “The staff have been here for many years and their knowledge about different products is remarkable.
“They have all the knowledge to advise our customers.
“People who come in tell us they wanted to check if we had an item first before looking elsewhere. It is incredibly heartwarming.”
Previous owner James Stuart Watson said there had always been a place for Watsons in the community.
In 2019, he said: “What I found was when the new houses went up in Inverurie, we would have people coming in and buying one curtain rail – and you would know it was for the one they had forgotten to buy.
“We were a handy shop for people in the town so they didn’t have to go all the way to Aberdeen.”
A fond farewell
It was announced earlier this month that Watsons was to close as Mary announced her retirement after more than two decades at the helm.
Mary said it had been a “happy” 21 years and added: “A way of life for everyone at Watsons is changing – incredibly most of our staff have been with Watsons for many years, some over 40 years!
“Rod and I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has supported Watsons over the years.
“It has been a real privilege to help and serve the folks of this wonderful community, and we especially thank our regular customers.
“After working together for so long, the wrench of leaving our close-knit team of staff is very difficult.
“They have been dedicated to Watsons, we can’t thank them enough for their service and friendship.”
There has been an outpouring of support for Watsons in Inverurie following the announcement as the community mourns the loss of its oldest business.
Hundreds of tributes have been paid to the “iconic” store from far and wide.
Although the name will be vanishing from the square in Inverurie, Watsons’ ironmongery will live on in the very fabric of the buildings surrounding it.